Cantha? Can-do, Guild Wars 2!

Years and years ago at PAX, I was covering a Guild Wars 2 event and I got to watch Colin Johanson tackle a succession of interviews. Pretty much every reporter asked him the same popular fan question of, “So, what about Cantha?” To which, Colin would visibly die a little more and give an evasive answer.

Hopefully, he survived, because finally nobody’s going to be asking that question any more.

Personally, I don’t get why Cantha was really all that in Guild Wars 1, but fans really, really seemed attached to the setting and have wanted the sequel to feature it since GW2 launched. Now it looks as if they’ll get their wish, as ArenaNet announced yesterday that it broke ground on a third expansion and teased the above picture to strongly hint that, yes, it’s Cantha-time. Beyond that, no details, no timeline, nothing. Just “please keep playing our game for right now and we’ll try to get an expansion to you… sometime. Just don’t go away.”

The response among my Guild Wars 2 friends has been extreme high levels of joy. I’m kind of Ben Wyatt from Parks & Rec who doesn’t get why the whole town is nuts about a small horse, but I’m glad that they’re glad. And they ARE glad. Like, jumping-up-and-down-squealing-like-an-F1-racer-burning-out-the-gate glad.

Setting aside, I definitely approve that Guild Wars 2 is committing to a third expansion. This weird “saga” stuff isn’t really lighting up fan enthusiasm and the game’s been languishing ever since last year’s layoffs and project reduction. Expansions are proven excitement machines, something for the playerbase to rally around. I wouldn’t be surprised if Guild Wars 2 saw its population spike up significantly this weekend due to that teaser image alone. Heck, I’m a bit tempted to play, maybe because it’s been stirring in my mind this winter.

But I guarantee you that even if you’ve never played the game, you have more than enough time to go through all of its content and expansions before this expansion releases. From the sound of it, Cantha is a long ways out — probably 2021, and maybe late 2021 at that. This is just a notice to say that ArenaNet is working on it, not that it has anything more than a single piece of concept art to show for it.

Missing the Guild Wars 2 that was, not is

While I never talk about it, every evening I do log into Guild Wars 2. This is part of a quick rotation of games that I currently play or might play again that I do in order to grab daily rewards. Plus, logging in to GW2 unlocks the living world chapters when they come. So it’s kind of hedging on a possible gaming future.

Yet I’m just not sure that I want to play Guild Wars 2… maybe ever again. I wish that was not the case. The core game? I love the core game. I think ArenaNet was at the top of its game with the release of Guild Wars 2 and the way it crafted a world that was fun to explore and engage with public events. In a different universe, I could see development skewing more to feeding us casual-friendly players — particularly with the addition of proper housing.

That’s not the way Guild Wars 2 went. Instead, we got grindy masteries and fractals and — I still don’t know why — raids. Mounts seemed cool, but the game seemed like it drifted far away from what I used to know and love about it.

The other week, ArenaNet actually broke its silence to talk with its fans about the content coming for the game. Obviously, after last year’s studio gutting, Guild Wars 2 isn’t on fire as it once was. Even so, I’d hoped to see something really encouraging from what the remaining team had been up to. Instead… more fractals. More raids. More of stuff that isn’t that appealing and doesn’t call out to me to come back.

It would be much easier to hate on a game and denounce it once and for all. But I think MMO gamers know that special agony of loving a game as it used to be, not as it is at the present. Sometimes change is not for the better at all.

But hey, who knows. Maybe I’ll give GW2 some more time off and revisit it then and enjoy what I can. Maybe I’ll get through all of the living world stuff and expansions I have yet to do. And maybe, just maybe, Guild Wars 3 will emerge one day. For now, however, I’ll log in, grab my goodie bag, and log off without feeling a second of compulsion to actually play.

A tale of two amazing MMO character creators

Let me ask you a question: When is the last time that you created a new character in an MMO and felt, by the end of the character creation process, that you had a firm grasp on who that character was beyond superficial looks and combat prowess? Almost never, right?

If you have ever played a good pen-and-paper RPG, that is certainly not the case when you whip up a new character. You know a name, a backstory, a list of feats and weaknesses, native languages, personalities, and the like. It’s part of playing the role of that character, that you need more than just hit points, bust size, and damage output to partake in the game. When I was a kid, I always loved pouring over PnP RPG manuals to dream up an army of characters, each with their own unique place in the world.

Some single-player CRPGs still carry forth this legacy. Some actually give a damn about making an involved character creator process that gives the players lots of options and ways to customize a character so that, from the first minute of the game onward, he or she has a good grasp on who that character is.

MMOs? MMOs have largely given up on this. Character creation is boiled down to “pick a faction, pick a class, pick a race, pick a look.” We might laud them for having MANY classes or SEVERAL look options, but there isn’t a lot of width there.

Yet I can point to two strong examples of very different fantasy MMOs that nevertheless put a premium on establishing deep characters inside the creator itself rather than hours later in the game. The first would be Guild Wars 2, which astounds me today as it did nearly a decade ago with a 10-step (!) process to make characters.

Sure, some of those steps are pretty standard — look, class, race — but others help establish the outline of a backstory and seed future narrative events in the first part of the game. You pick choices that illustrate the personality and history of your character, such as the god you worship or your greatest ambition. You even select your character’s predominant personality trait, such as charm or deceit. These choices are often limited, but they’re immersive and often have some impact in the game down the road. I’ve always loved it, and by step 10, I feel like I am far more connected to my character than I am in other games.

The other game I want to praise is perhaps less-known, especially for this feature, but no less robust. Villagers and Heroes bowled me over the first time I went through its character creator. It’s apparent that a lot of love went into this part of the game, as the choices you make are not only written up as a multi-paragraph biography, but a narrator asks you questions and talks about your picks.

You can choose things such as your place of origin and pick a starting gear set. Not only do you select your combat role but also your village role — what gathering or crafting skills you have and what house you want. A game that gives me a house out of the gate? Get out of here!
I feel that the character creator is a lost art in MMORPGs. I don’t just want to pour over what I look like, I want to agonize over choices of who my character is and what motivates them. I want the game to recognize and respond to that. Maybe it’s a silly thing to champion, but it matters to me.

Guild Wars 2: What future does this MMO hold?

Is Guild Wars 2 starting to wrap up and wind down?

Honestly, I would never have thought so. I still don’t, not really. Guild Wars 2 continues to be a popular and populated game that makes a decent amount of cash for ArenaNet and NCsoft (although not as much as some of NCsoft’s eastern titles). It’s been getting a content update every few months and an expansion every other year. If you were to rank the top 10 healthiest and actively discussed MMOs right now, I’m pretty sure that GW2 would be in the top 5. To me, it seems that this MMO is firmly in its middle years where it’s found its groove and pattern, and we should be in for that for a while barring any unforeseen circumstances.

Yet. Yet I’ve heard rumblings. Massively OP’s Tina, who knows this game better than anyone else I’ve met, mentioned on the podcast a growing concern among the community — a perception — that GW2 may be preparing to end. The issue here, she explained, is one of story: The game has already done pretty much all it can with its 2,487 named dragons of lore that it can. It may be done with major threats and story beats.

Personally, I found this kind of ridiculous. There are always more villains, because writers can make them up. Same thing with story. Virtual history goes on, and so it could conceivably indefinitely for Guild Wars 2.

But Tina’s concern isn’t the only time I’ve heard this as of late. Some players are actively speculating that the tight-lipped ArenaNet is working on other projects — other titles or a Guild Wars 3 — instead of pushing hard for a continued future for GW2. It could be that GW2 is simply not making enough money for NCsoft, and we all know how that tends to fare for this company (then again, look how long they kept the underperforming WildStar running).

Some players seem absolutely calm about the prospect of GW2 going into maintenance mode as a so-far-unannounced Guild Wars 3 ramps up.  It’s no secret that ArenaNet banked hard on PvP (and WvW) becoming a Major Thing, including an esports franchise, and the cold, hard fact that it didn’t had to hurt future prospects. The lack of communication by the studio as of late and the slow pace of content rollout has a lot of people thinking… and talking.

Personally, I think it’s far too early to proclaim the death of Guild Wars 2 — or even its semi-retirement in the vein of Guild Wars 1. ArenaNet is still making bank on it, still enjoying a healthy dose of popularity, and still has a core game around which it can stick on new expansions. That has to be a much more easy way to make money than, you know, building an entirely new MMO from scratch.

I wouldn’t even blame ArenaNet if it decided to keep milking GW2 while it branched out into other franchises. The entire history of that studio has been that of a single franchise, and that must be getting a little stale for creative types.

What do you think? Any validity to these community predictions, or is it some wishful thinking and doomsaying?

Going mad (king) in Guild Wars 2

Right now, Guild Wars 2 is the “odd MMO out” of my roster of five games that I play in that it’s the only one that I’m logging into just to be with people and not to engage in any sort of progression — character, story, or otherwise. I have enough else that’s holding my interest that I probably wouldn’t be playing right now if it wasn’t for the fact that the guild I’m in is full of cheery and downright hilarious people. So I certainly don’t mind spending an hour or two with them once a week.

Our last outing was fully Halloween themed, and we broke out the appropriate minipets while talking on Discord about how downright creepy it is that the Guild Wars franchise has always featured small versions of people as “pets.” I mean, are they sentient? Are they clones? Do they scream in horror when you shove them back into a backpack? Does Queen Jenna protest that she’s actually a royal while you drag her along on a leash?

As we waited for the group to assemble, I amused myself by standing behind my pet ghost and giving it pink pigtails. I think it improves the look, don’t you?

We ran all of the expected content, starting with the Mad King fight. Lots of falling to our death and laughing about how horrible we are at jumping. Forget gliders, I wouldn’t mind a parachute in this game.

As you can tell, I’ve abandoned my newbie Mesmer and returned to my original character, my Engineer. I don’t care if it’s not optimal or if it’s out of fashion, I simply love the flamethrower as a weapon (and elixirs to empower it and give me speed boosts). We talked in chat a lot about our favorite classes and weapon styles, and I didn’t hear much that made me want to rush out and get the expansions for the Engineer’s elite specs.

Probably the most fun we had was running the Labyrinth, which is definitely something I remember from the first year that Guild Wars 2 launched. Wasn’t the Halloween event the game’s first event? In any case, it’s pretty much the same as it was back then: Follow the commander in a giant zerg, beat up bosses, and loots lots of loot hoping against hope that you’ll actually get something cool or useful.

Man, I am down on this game’s loot table. I’m sorry, but it really is quite pathetic. It’s like Vendor Trash: The MMO at times.

We did get a lot of giggles out of how unfair and mean the bosses were, especially when they resulted in our downings or death. It made me think about how even simple experiences, when shared, can be bonding. The Labyrinth isn’t anything complicated or difficult, but it is mindless fun that is done in the presence of a whole bunch of people, and that is a much different feeling than questing along.

GW2: Bouncy missions

“All right,” our guild coordinator said. “Tonight we’re going to be doing bouncy missions.”

“Excuse me, what?”

“Bouncy missions. You know, find those NPCs with a green icon over their heads and kill them.”

“…do you mean bounty missions?”

“I have a cold, don’t mock me!”

“I’m going to mock a little, sorry.”

I love our plucky little Guild Wars 2 guild, I really do. They’re a really funny bunch to run with and I don’t much mind what we’re doing as long as we’re doing it together. The “bouncy” mission was a quick bust, at least for me, as I was too slow in getting there. One of these days I’ll really need to pony up for the expansions so I can get my glider and mount. I’m still very much a land speed Asura.

Oh! Speaking of Asura, I changed things up and logged onto my original Engineer for the guild night. This was mostly because she’s the only character I have who has 100% map completion, which gave me every waypoint I needed.

The choice ended up being a good one. I got oohed and ahhed over as a cute little thing — I don’t see a lot of Asura, and most of our guild were tree elves — and soon enough I remembered how much fun this class was. Pistols? Shields? FLAMETHROWERS? How did I forget the flamethrower? Must have been a sharp blow to the head.

Following that, we embarked on a guild race. This is yet more game content I’d never done before. The mission turned us into skittering spiders who had to complete a race circuit without being killed (being squashed is easy, but at least you can try, try again until the timer runs out). We got classic spider abilities, like flinging webs, creating holographic decoys, and sonar. What we did not have is, you know, the ability to crawl up walls. That might have been useful in this mostly-vertical challenge.

Lots of death, laughter, and bad jokes ensued. One of our guild mates kept muttering, “skitter skitter skitter” on Discord, which for some reason cracked me up.

If you’re wondering, I died plenty enough to keep my ego at safe levels for the week to come. Eventually I used the strategy of “follow the crowd of spiders who know the way to the end and can also serve as a buffer between you and death should anything angry appear in our path.” And it worked, for I crossed the finish line with minutes to spare and received my just reward: a classic Guild Wars 2 chest with lots of nothing really special inside.

I swear, this game needs a good loot table.

Guild Wars 2: Puzzling out a dungeon

As I continue to acclimate to the Mesmer in Guild Wars 2 and experiment around with her different abilities, I’m rediscovering all sorts of things that started to fade into distant memories. These include the slickness of the UI, the general uselessness of loot, the tight animation/movement, and the joy that is BeeDog.

Oh, and I’m also being reminded that this game really does facilitate social events and challenges. I think I’ve ended up bumping into more players as of late than I do in most of my other MMOs, mostly because the design of GW2 is such that it puts out events that draw players in like ants coming for a delicious cookie.

Our guild has a regular night in which everyone gets together to tackle various things in the game, and when I logged in for the first one, we were coming together to fight a fire elemental and get some extra loot. After that, we headed off for a guild puzzle — something that I’ve only done perhaps one time before in my history with this game.

This was interesting. This “puzzle dungeon” was more about navigating environmental obstacles than fighting (or speed-running past) mobs, and most of us had never been in this particular one. I forget the name, but it took place in an icy cave where the man-made structures were falling down and on the verge of collapse. It gave the place a really skewed perspective with lots of heights and harrowing jumps.

Oh yeah. That’s another thing I’m remembering. Guild Wars 2 loves its jumping puzzles. Sigh.

Anyway, as a group, we had to figure out how to progress, especially through certain rooms that were set up as elaborate puzzles. The trickiest of these for us was one where we had to shoot icicles down to form a bridge to cross. It took us most of the first run to figure out how to do it, and in the second run, we came at it quickly and wrapped it up within a minute or so. That second run got bogged down in a later room, but on try three, we managed to reach the end before the timer ran out (there’s a 30-minute limit on these).

The loot was… Guild Wars 2 loot, I guess. It filled up my bags with stuff that I don’t need at the moment or would just break down for materials and store. But the group accomplishment felt great, and I genuinely enjoyed doing something together. Reminded me a lot of Dungeons and Dragons Online’s group dungeons, especially the ones where puzzles feature prominently.